When a two-year-old filly is named Horse of the Year, you know she’s a once in a lifetime horse.
But when Odies Fame approached the gate as a three-year-old, in search of Breeders Crown glory, Canadian racing fans could only hope and pray for the best. By Kathy Rumleski
It’s a cool, late-October night and there’s a sense of trepidation, as well as intense excitement.
It’s the richest night in Canadian harness racing history and Mohawk Racetrack is jammed with fans. An estimated 7,000 people are here – notching up the warmth in the autumn air a little – with hundreds more in the recently-opened gaming area inside.
The pulse of the crowd is beating high because, along with superstars Blissfull Hall, Red Bow Tie and Self Possessed, a local filly with a storied past is on the card.
Hers is the kind of narrative you could call a Cinderella story (and some writers did), but that wouldn’t come nearly close enough to touch upon the whole story of rejection and redemption.
Odies Fame is being prepped in the paddock for the Breeders Crown Three-Year-Old Filly Pace, and a nervous trainer is brooding over his star pupil, who had already set six track records and shattered, by a full second, the world record on the five-eighths at Rideau Carleton (1:52.3), on her way to 11 consecutive wins as a two-year-old.
At the end of that storied two-year-old season she was awarded with the title of Canadian Horse of the Year. But trainer Harold (Buddy) Wellwood and his co-owner Norm Amos, had to pay a $45,000 US supplemental fee in order to enter her in the Breeders Crown at three.
It seemed they paid it as much to honour the filly than for any other reason.
“We thought we owed it to the mare,” Amos had said, just a couple of days before the biggest race of her life.
Odie, as she was affectionately called, finished third in her elimination, after cutting the mile out as the 4-5 favourite. It was not the kind of finish they wanted ahead of the important night. History wasn’t on their side either, as no supplemental entry had ever won the three-year-old pacing filly division of the Breeders Crown.
“Tension was very high. There was fear amongst a lot of us,” says Wellwood’s daughter Nicole, who was 15 at the time. “It definitely was a lot of pressure on my father. Breeders Crown night did hold a tremendous amount of stress.”
Odies Fame was having a successful season at age three, but she was also hampered by allergies that year. While winning seven of 16 starts before the Breeders Crown was nothing to sneeze at, so to speak, she wasn’t as consistently victorious as she was at two.
She drew Post 6 for the final and was in tough against eight American-sired fillies, including the favoured three-horse entry of the powerful Peter Pan Stables of Ohio.
Nicole had spent the last two summers following Odie to her races around the province. She witnessed daily the uncanny connection between her father and the filly.
In Odies Fame, Wellwood saw a mare with raw talent, something overlooked by everyone at the Forest City Yearling Sale, where he got a steal of a deal at only $7,500 because she “wasn’t built the most desirable way,” according to Amos.
Kicked in the head and bruised by the feisty filly, Wellwood had to let her think she was in control to break her. And because he understood her need to feel she was in charge, she performed for him. With racing in his blood, the Stratford-area trainer loved the track and his horses. But winning wasn’t everything for him, far from it.
“What my dad really hoped for every time Odie entered the track was that she was going to get a safe drive and that she was going to finish the race, unharmed,” Nicole says.
While Wellwood is tense and quiet as post time approaches, driver Dave Wall is calm and confident. He has been Odie’s driver since the beginning of her career, except for her second start, when the trainer drove her at a race in Ottawa.
Wall knows her talent and he is impressed with her heart. If the Grinch’s heart was too small, Odie’s was perhaps too big. She pushed herself when others would have stopped. It was not widely known that she had strangles after her two-year-old season wrapped up and Wall wondered at the time if she would ever race again.
Now with everything on the line, he knows this filly is going to win. Like any clutch performer, she senses the importance of the night and is about to step into glory.
Wall has one goal for the race and that is to get Odie to the front. She was roughed up in the elimination and Wall repeatedly saw her bounce back better than ever after each tough trip, almost as if she wanted to prove herself.
If he can get her the lead, victory is secured. That’s how darn confident he’s feeling.
In the Crown race prior to Odie’s, Eternal Camnation won the two-year-old filly pace. A star had just been born, who would one day stand as the richest pacing mare in history. The crowd is hungry for a hometown hero, the way it was when Odie’s father, Apaches Fame, became the first Ontario-sired horse to win the North America Cup in 1990.
As the race starts – the fourth on a card with purse money totalling $5.3 million – Nicole and her father stand side by side. In contrast to Wellwood’s quiet gaze, his daughter is screaming as loud as she can as she watches Odie come off the gate.
She looks around at the crowd – now shoulder to shoulder – taking in all the people yelling and cheering for Odie. Mind blowing is how she would later recall it.
Odie charges out of the six hole like a cork out of a champagne bottle and Wall urges her to the front. He gets her there and then simply let’s her pace. He knows she’s got this.
A tail wind from the east helps.
She’s pacing effortlessly, outperforming Bolero Takara, who won Odie’s elimination the week before. The crowd continues its roar through each quarter with Odie leading. Track announcer Frank Salive is at the top of his game for Breeders Crown night. He knows how much it would mean for the fans to see this filly win. He’s been impressed with her ever since he saw her set the world mark in Ottawa.
Nicole is listening to Salive’s call and it’s sending chills down her spine. It is full of emotion and suspense, building and crescendoing. Salive, like Nicole, knows the sport is on the verge of history. At the head of the lane and still in front, Wall can hear everyone hollering. They cheered her all the way down the stretch.
Before the race is finished, Wellwood slips away, walking back toward the paddock. He couldn’t help but hear Salive call the victory: “Odies Fame will spread her fame around the world,” as she crosses the line in a wire-to-wire victory of 1:53. Bolero Takara is second by two lengths.
At the wire, Wall is thinking how much Odies Fame deserves this. It’s a seminal moment for him as well. Thirteen years later he would enter the Hall of Fame, giving a large share of the credit to Odie. “I wasn’t just a blue collar worker showing up to work every day when I had her.”
It is loud, yet seems quiet, as big moments often do and time stands still briefly. Wellwood is alone as he walks back toward the track, a solitary figure going unnoticed. But the Breeders Crown is Wellwood’s brightest moment, occurring in the dark of night.
As he comes around a corner, he sees a reporter standing alone as well, someone who had covered Odies Fame throughout her career. There are tears in his eyes. It’s been 30 years to get to this point for the trainer who toiled mostly in the shadows, fighting personal battles. It was a life-defining moment, his daughter would say of the win.
He puts his arm around the reporter’s shoulder, smiles through the tears and then continues the walk to the winner’s circle without a word, for none is necessary and none could suffice.
It was the last time the reporter would see him. Wellwood died suddenly eight months later at age 45.
As he steps onto the track, it’s a frenzy. Norm Amos is shaking hands with everyone around him, inviting practically anyone he can see into the winner’s circle.
Wall is telling reporters that he’s never seen a horse that is so much like a human. He can’t stop smiling. “I’m happy for the mare. She deserves it. I’m glad she had the recognition,” he’s saying.
Amos pulls out a pack of Player’s cigarettes and lights one up.
He can scarcely believe what just happened. “She’s a dream of a lifetime,” the retired St. Marys veterinarian says.
Nicole is in the thick of it. “The cameras were flashing; a lot of action, a lot of people. It was an amazing experience.” The win was so convincing, the feat so remarkable against those American fillies that Odies Fame won the U.S. Dan Patch Award as best in her division, even though she hadn’t put a hoof on American soil.
Odies Fame was a horse of the people. Even those who didn’t follow harness racing were at the track to see her. That’s how far-reaching was the appeal of her unlikely career success.
Nicole understood the importance of all the mare was able to achieve in her short life of eight years. Odie would die in 2004 from complications due to colic.
“(She) shined a light on harness racing itself. That’s why Odie had such a backing. It wasn’t big-time owners or trainers. It was that kind of hope and inspirational piece.”
Nicole continues to gain hope from the mare that brought her a lifetime of memories with her father. Having lost her seven-year-old son Evan to brain cancer last December – not long after his town of St. George gave him an early Christmas — news of Odie’s induction into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame this summer has given her comfort, support and pride.
“I’m honoured as (Buddy’s) daughter. I know my mom (Linda Wellwood) is honoured. It hasn’t softened the blow of losing Evan, but it has given us some happiness,” she says.
“We knew she was one in a million, and we knew when she went to the gate, that every time, she put her heart and soul into every single race. She was a horse that possessed the heart of a champion.”